Americans waste a lot of their lives in traffic, with the average urban auto commuter spending 35 hours a year idling on highways during rush hour. The problem is getting so bad that some cities are beginning to consider a radical market-based solution.
Congestion pricing is a variable toll on drivers that rises or falls based on how many cars are on a stretch of road at a given time. The idea is to harness the power of the price mechanism to ration when and where people drive.
Higher tolls during peak hours push motorists to travel at different times, use alternative routes, or collapse multiple trips into just one—all of which cuts down on the time people spend driving. The revenue generated meanwhile can be spent on additional congestion-reducing projects, such as widening lanes or expanding bus service.
Already, Virginia is putting the idea to work to help relieve nightmarish levels of congestion around the Washington, D.C., area. The state introduced variable tolls on parts of Interstate 66 in December.
Other cities are looking at following suit. Seattle's new mayor, Jenny Durkan, has said she would be open to congestion pricing, and the City Council included $200,000 to study the possibility in its 2018 budget. A similar story is playing out a little farther south in Oregon, where Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has publicly floated the idea of putting tolls on stretches of Interstate 5. The state Department of Transportation is now holding town hall meetings to gauge the popularity of such a change.
In New York, the legislature is considering a proposal from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would impose a fixed $11.52 fee on any driver entering Manhattan below 60th Street. A close cousin of congestion pricing, this type of "cordon pricing" is already in use in a number of cities around the world, including London, Singapore, and Stockholm.
Despite growing openness, congestion pricing faces an uphill battle. People generally don't like having to pay for things they were until recently getting for free. Commuters often balk at the idea of coughing up cash to drive on public roads—even as they're the ones who shoulder the costs of wasted hours in traffic and higher gas taxes absent tolls.
Politicians also threaten to blunt the effectiveness of congestion pricing by making politically expedient carve-outs. Virginia has exceptions for government vehicles and two-person carpools, while Oregon and Seattle officials have said any congestion pricing scheme must exempt poorer drivers.
If open roads are the goal, however, policy makers can do no better than the dynamic prices offered by unfettered congestion rates.